Zoë Faw with a Pine Siskin.

Confessions of an Aspiring Birder

I have a confession.

I’m not a very good birder.

Don’t get me wrong, I can tell an American Robin from a Black-Capped Chickadee. But given that A Rocha was founded by some seriously keen birders, and given that I’ve been with A Rocha Canada for 17ish years now, I feel somewhat sheepish about my (lack of) birding skills. At gatherings of A Rocha staffers from around the world I’ve had moments where I feel like the lone, closet, tennis fan in the midst of Maple Leafs hockey fans during a Stanley Cup run.

But I’m happy to report that this past spring I’ve made real progress. Just before the pandemic lockdown I stocked up on birdseed, set up feeders outside our windows, and recruited my 14-year-old daughter, Zoë, to join me in watching and learning about backyard birds. And it totally worked!  One of the consistent joys of the past few months of being homebound has been to marvel and appreciate, in a new way, the spring migration and nesting rhythms of the finches and hummingbirds and grosbeaks and sparrows.

And it has been delightful to share this burgeoning understanding with Zoë. As a bonus, perhaps, I can hold my head a little higher around my birding colleagues knowing that she will grow up far more attuned to our feathered friends than I have.

I was particularly proud of her one day in May. Zoë was outside working in her garden patch and noticed a Pine Siskin perched at the feeder a few metres away. Out of curiosity she slowly approached the bird. She got closer and closer and the bird seemed unconcerned. She gradually reached out her hand and… lo and behold… she touched it! After a few moments it flew away but this fleeting experience was magical.

Zoë resumed the tending of less mobile species like basil and lettuce. But when the bird returned she figured there was no harm in trying again. This time she actually managed to coax the bird onto her hand! Amazing!

Throughout the afternoon and evening she repeatedly retrieved the bird from the feeder, sat down with it on her hand and fed it seed from her hand.

“Daddy, Daddy come see!”

I was astonished. After witnessing this routine (and dutifully documenting it on video, of course) I admit I started to have thoughts about a fantastic A Rocha blog post featuring my daughter, the bird whisperer!

Zoë and I were eager to share her experience so I texted pictures and clips to my sister-in-law, Annie. A bird lover herself, she was, predictably, incredulous and gave us a satisfyingly enthusiastic response. But mercifully, Annie also discerned the too-good-to-be-true dimension of this unexpected encounter. After some quick research, she reported that Pine Siskins are one of a few feeder species susceptible to salmonellosis.  And our bird was exhibiting all the symptoms, including lethargy. Even worse, one of the chief causes of this potentially deadly disease is bird feeders that have lacked consistent cleaning. Needless to say, we cleaned the feeder immediately and since then we haven’t had any Pine Siskins tame enough to hold.

What have I learned?

Humility. I’m so grateful Annie saved me from an embarrassing post (I’m sure the truth would have been revealed by other keen-eyed ornithologists). I guess I’m left to earn my birding credentials the old-fashioned way – actually learning about birds.

Humor. I’ll bet God was smiling as my prideful temptations, once again, nearly got the best of me. And it has been a fun story to share.

Wonder. The exhilaration and thrill of those moments reminds me that we are, indeed, created for relationships of care and tenderness with our fellow creatures.

Patience. On this side of Christ’s return, we will always be ‘on the journey’, learning to live as the earthkeepers we’re meant to be (clean feeders regularly – check!). Until then, I long to be tutored by Jesus, the Jewish Rabbi that spent a lot of time outside and who was once ‘mistaken’ for a gardener.


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